By Larry Teren
What a great country! Well, maybe. No seriously. Okay, maybe it is when we are all on the same page speaking the same language. But you will say that this country is known for being a melting pot. The Statue of Liberty proclaims, “bring us your tired, your poor….” Yeah, but the idea is that the terrestrial aliens are supposed to be kind of like trying to learn to speak English so they can melt in quicker, no?
Back in high school in the 1960’s, we were told we had to learn at least one foreign language in order to graduate. I chose Spanish over French, ’cause like, man, there are more Spanish speakers on this side of the world than French talkers. Except, forty plus years ago I figured I’d only bump into an occasional Latino other than our native Puerto Ricans. Little would I expect that all these years later, I’m the one in the minority.
So, I took two years of Spanish taught by a lady who lived in Berwyn, a near southwest suburb of Chicago. In those days, if you saw a Latino in Berwyn, it was only because the Ambassador to Mexico was visiting. That gives you an idea of your chances of being able to practice this new found language knowledge. So, like our teacher was more an expert in formal Spanish- the type learned out of books than of the common man on the street- excuse me, I mean avenida or something close to that.
I learned two important phrases in those two years because that’s all I ever paid attention to when in class- “cierra la boca”, which loosely means “close your mouth before I close it for you” and “callar te”, which translates to, “when I said ‘shut the firetruck up’, I mean it”. Oh, I forgot- there were other words like “mierda” as in “usted llena de mierda” which I cannot translate without having to apologize.
Anyways, learning Spanish taught me a lot about foreign cultures. There was that time about twenty years ago I practiced it on the warehouse manager at a client. The little guy was Puerto Rican. I tried the ‘mierda’ phrase out on him. He was so impressed he pulled out his switchblade to show it to me and was willing to try that out on me. A couple of barrio mates of his convinced him that it would not be a good idea. Yeah, who knows what I would have done, right?
Lately everywhere I go all I hear is Spanish. I get on the elevator in my condo building to go down to the lobby and there are three ladies carrying mops and buckets intending to stop on the third floor. I am standing behind them sort of in the middle. The entire minute we share the ride they are conversing loudly. They smile at me knowing I haven’t a clue as to what they are saying but as they get off the elevator, I smile and wink at one and say, “gracias”. Now I have her thinking which is all the revenge I ask for.
Last week I went to a client that I haven’t seen in about six weeks. I headed over into the warehouse building in the complex to do some work. When done, I stopped over to visit one of the department supervisors and one of his underlings saw me and smiled. She does not know how to converse in English and she knows that I like to pretend that I can mumble my way in Spanish. She says as she points to me, “mas joven”. I return the smile, point to my stomach and reply with, “flaca”. The supervisor falls on the floor laughing. The lady had said to me flirtatiously that I now looked so much younger. I then added, “and thinner.” No respect, I tell you, I get no respect.
Yesterday, while shopping at a favorite supermarket, I was at one of the frozen foods sections while two Spanish speaking stock boys were putting out more merchandise. One of the Spanish speaking ladies who works in the deli section kitchen walked by and one of the stock boys flirted with her. Once she passed out of earshot, he turned to his buddy and in rapid fire Espanol, said something like, “these broads treat us like dirt. They have no respect for us.” Or maybe it was, “did you get a look at her? Oy, chihuahua!”
In the meantime, I’m waiting for that big consulting contract south of the border that takes advantages of my analytical skills and multilingual expertise. As we like to say among the gringos who dabble in Spanish, “empuje dos hablar conmigo”.